The Mantell Incident
January 7, 1948

Reprinted by permission from The UFO Encyclopedia, 2nd Ed: The Phenomenon from the Beginning -  Jerome Clark

Crash debris from Mantell's F-51

One of the most publicized of early UFO incidents occurred on the afternoon of January 7, 1948. Ironically, it is not certain that it was a "UFO incident" at all. It is certain, however, that in the course of it tragedy occurred: a 25-year-old Kentucky Air National Guard pilot, Capt. Thomas F. Manttell, Jr., died when the F-51 he was flying crashed southwest of Franklin, Kentucky. 

At 1:20 PM. T/Sgt. Quinton Blackwell, a tower operator at Godman Field, the airstrip serving Fort Knox near Louisville, took a call from the fort's military police passing on an alert from the Kentucky State Highway Patrol. The highway patrol had said it was receiving reports of an unusual aerial object over Maysville, 80 miles to the east. Godman notified Flight Service at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, and asked if there were any aircraft in the vicinity. There were none. A few minutes later the highway patrol called back to say it now had reports from Owensboro and Irvington, where witnesses were describing a westbound circular object 250 to 300 feet in diameter. 

At 1:45 Blackwell looked to the southern sky and saw something out of the ordinary. He quickly notified two others, a private and a lieutenant, who observed a small white object. Others were alerted, including the commanding officer, Col. Guy Hix, and all saw it, characterizing it variously as resembling a "parachute with the bright sun shining on top of the silk," "round and whiter than the clouds that passed in front of it," "an ice cream cone topped with red" (Blue Book files). Hix said, "It was very white and looked like an umbrella. I thought it was a celestial body. I can't account for the fact it didn't move. I just don't know what it was. It appeared about one-fourth the size of the full moon and white in color. Through the binoculars it appeared to have a red border at the bottom at times, a red border at the top at times. It remained stationary, seemingly for one and a half hours" (Blue Book files). 

The disaster

As the observers discussed the strange sight, four F-51's approached. Leading the ferry mission -  a few days earlier the aircraft had been grounded at Marietta Army Air Base in Georgia and were now being returned to Standiford Air Field in northern Kentucky - was Capt. Mantell, an experienced pilot who had participated in the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. Blackwell asked Mantell and his companions to see if they could get close to the object. 

Saying that his fuel was running low, one of the pilots continued on to Standiford. Meanwhile, Mantell had spotted the object. He radioed the Godman tower that it was "in sight above and ahead of me, and it appears to be moving at about half my speed or approximately 180 miles an hour." Asked to describe it, he said, "It appears to be a metallic object or possibly reflection of sun from a metallic object, and it is of tremendous size." He turned right abruptly and climbed sharply, without informing the other two aircraft of his intentions, and they scrambled to catch up with him. At 16,000 feet Mantell's right wingman, 1st Lt. Albert Clements, put on his oxygen mask. Already the air was getting dangerously thin, and Mantell and the left wingman, 2nd Lt. B. A. Hammond, had not brought oxygen masks with them. 

Clements and Hammond followed their leader up to 20,000 feet. They were now over Bowling Green, Kentucky, and the other two pilots still weren't sure what they were supposed to be looking for. Mantell pointed it out to them: "Look, there it is out there at 12 o'clock!" Clements told investigators, "I was able to discern a bright-appearing object, very small, and so far away that I was unable to identify it as to size, shape, color.... Its position was slightly lower and to the left of the sun" (Blue Book files). Clements suggested to Mantell that they level off, accelerate, and try to get under the object. Mantell replied that he wanted to follow it up to 25,000 feet for 10 minutes; then, if they got no closer to it, they would abandon the chase. It was about 3:15. Around this time Mantell told Godman that the object was "directly ahead of me and slightly above and is now moving at about my speed or better.I am trying to close in for abetter look" 

At 22,500, with oxygen running low, Clements and Hammond broke off, descended, and resumed the flight to Standiford. Mantell did not respond to Clement's message telling him of their plans, and the last the right wingman saw of him and his aircraft, Mantell was "still climbing almost directly into the sun," Clements recalled. 

A minute or two later William C. Mayes, a resident of rural Franklin, "heard a funny noise as if [the pilot] were diving down and pulling up, but [the plane] wasn't, it was just circling. After about three circles the airplane started into a power dive slowly rotating. The plane was so high I could hardly see it when it started down. It started to make a terrific noise, ever increasing, as it descended. It exploded halfway between where it started to dive and the ground. No fire was seen." On a nearby farm Carrie Phillips was sitting in her living room when she heard an explosion. She ran to the front window in time to see a plane crash in her front yard 750 feet from the house. 

When Franklin firemen dragged the body of the partially decapitated Mantell from the wreckage, they noticed that his shattered wristwatch was stopped at 3:18. The evening edition of the Louisville Courier read: "F-51 and Capt. Mantell Destroyed Chasing Flying Saucer." 

At 3:50 the unidentified object disappeared from the view of the observers at Godman tower. By this time Clernents had refueled at Standiford and returned to the area to look, without success, for Mantell. Soon afterwards word came of the young pilot's death. 

Other reports

Sightings of an apparent UFO, or UFOs, continued into the evening. At 7:35 observers at Clinton County Air Base, near Wilmington in southwestern Ohio, saw a light that seemed to be "dancing" up and down and changing color from red to green when suddenly it sped toward the southwest. One witness, T/Sgt. Le Roy Ziegler, thought he could detect a faint exhaust trail behind it. Southwest of Clinton, in Columbus, personnel at Lockbourne Tower were seeing a brilliant light trailing an amber-colored exhaust. At one point it descended rapidly until it was close to the ground, hovered there for 10 seconds, then streaked back to its original position. Aside from the consideration that its appearance and behavior ruled out an astronomical body as an explanation, the sky was overcast, and no other celestial bodies were visible. 

The most complete account of the Lockbourne object comes from Albert R. Pickering, a civilian air controller who was interviewed at the time by Project Sign investigators and years later, in 1977, by ufologist William E. Jones (Gross, 1982; Jones, 1990). At the time of the sighting, Pickering was one mile from the tower, working in the direction-finding station just off the north-south runway. At 7 PM., as he was looking through the window into the overcast sky over the runway, he saw a "great big round red object" descending through the mist. His first thought was that a plane was coming down in flames; his second thought was that this object, perfectly spherical in shape, was unlike anything he had ever seen before. As he reached for the telephone to notify the tower, the phone rang; the tower wanted to know what he was seeing over his shack. 

Slightly bigger than a "one-car garage," in Pickering's words, it circled three times, each orbit taking 30 seconds or so and occupying no more than 100 square feet. Then it circled the entire base, shot (at what Pickering thought must be something like 1000 mph) to a position slightly southwest of where it had first appeared, then stopped so abruptly it looked as if it had run into a "wall." After a few moments it drifted to the edge of the base, descended straight down until it either touched the ground or came very close to it, and then went straight up to hover just below the clouds. The object took off in a northwestern direction. 

Other witnesses- to something -included three pilots, two in one aircraft. All estimated that it was at 3000 feet. They described it as a stationary amber light in the west-southwest sky, resembling a "large star or planet." This object may have been Venus. Possibly it would not have been noticed had the pilots not been alerted to the UFO scare going on elsewhere at the base. Pickering remembered only three other witnesses, all of them at the tower (Jones, op. cit.). Whatever those four observers saw, it could not have been Venus. 

The solution

That, however, quickly became the official explanation for everything, including Mantell's "metallic object of tremendous size." When he became director of Project Grudge, Edward J. Ruppelt learned that this identification had been offered by a major in the Pentagon, a man who, though without experience in UFO investigation, had been identified as an "expert" and introduced as such to reporters who were clambering for an answer to an incident that had attracted enormous press attention. In 1952, when an Air Force Intelligence colonel at the Pentagon asked to take a fresh look at the Mantell case, Ruppelt talked with Ohio State University astronomer and Air Force consultant J. Allen Hynek, who confessed that he had first suggested the Venus idea to the major. But now, he said, he wished he hadn't; while Venus was in the same approximate position in the sky as the "UFO" reported at Godman tower and by Mantell, it was for all practical purposes invisible to observers (Ruppelt, 1956). 

Eventually, Ruppelt decided that the object responsible for at least the Kentucky sightings was a Skyhook balloon, then part of a secret Navy project about which none of the witnesses would have known. In fact, between 4 and 4:45 the afternoon of the sighting, at least two separate observers in Kentucky and Tennessee had seen what they first took to be a UFO; then, when each had focused a telescope on it, they saw it was a balloon. Ruppelt wrote: 

When first seen by the people in Godman Tower, the UFO was south of the air base. It was relatively close and looked "like a parachute," which a balloon does. During the two hours that it was in sight, the observers reported that it seemed to hover, yet each observer estimated the time he looked at the object through the binocurs and sizewise the descriptions ran "huge," "small," "one fourth the size of a full moon," "one tenth the size of a full moon." Whatever the UFO was, it was slowly moving away. As the balloon continued to drift in a southerly direction it would have picked up stronger winds, and could have easily been seen by the astronomers in Madisonville, Kentucky, and north of Nashville an hour after it disappeared from view at Godman. [ibid].

Ruppelt studied the wind patterns on the afternoon of January 7,1948, and decided that the sightings followed the path the Skyhook would have flown. Unfortunately, he was unable to make a certain identification because he could not locate flight records, though his sources at Wright Field told him they thought the Skyhooks had been launched from Clinton County Air Base (where Pickering and three others saw an object that was as unlikely to have been a balloon as it was to have been Venus). But in later years Grudge's successor, Project Blue Book, was to claim it had "determined that on the date of the Godman sighting a balloon was released by the Navy from Clinton County airport in Ohio" (Blue Book files). 

Though the Skyhook identification is surely correct, the claim that it was launched from Clinton County airport is certainly mistaken. According to Charles B. Moore, who conducted balloon experiments for the government in the late 1940s, no Skyhook flew from the airport before July 9, 1951. An investigation conducted in the early 1990s by ufologists Barry Greenwood and Robert G. Todd identified the balloon as one set off from Camp Ripley, Minnesota, at 8 A.M. on January 6, 1948 ("The Mantell UFO," 1994). 

The legend

According to Ruppelt, Air Force investigators initially were "convinced that the object Mantell was after was a spaceship and... this was the only course they... pursued. When the sighting grew older and no spaceship proof could be found, everybody jumped on the Venus band wagon, as this theory had 'already been established"' (Ruppelt, op. cit.).

Nonetheless, in a Saturday Evening Post article written with Air Force cooperation and reflecting the anti-UFO line then current at Grudge, Sidney Shallett wrote that if Mantell did not die chasing Venus (a claim many viewed as dubious), the culprit was probably a Navy cosmic-ray balloon - a Skyhook in other words (Shallett, 1949). In his January 1950 True article Donald E. Keyhoe asserted that no balloon could have performed the "lightninglike maneuvers" of the Mantell object, though it is not clear to what maneuvers he is referring., Keyhoe also doubted that Mantell had crashed because he blacked out from lack of oxygen. He quoted an anonymous pilot's verdict: "It looks like a cover-up to me. I think Mantell did just what he said he would - closed in on the thing. I think he either collided with it, or more likely they [the UFO's occupants) knocked him out of the air" (Keyhoe, 1950b). 

In a follow-up book, The Flying Saucers Are Real, Keyhoe contended that the Air Force was withholding significant information about the case, which "might even be the key to the whole flying-saucer riddle." The object Mantell and others saw had to be, in the words of one of Keyhoe's sources, "a huge space ship - perhaps the largest ever to come into our atmosphere." Keyhoe was certain that the Air Force "must have known the truth from the start - that Mantell had pursued a tremendous space ship. That fact alone, if it had exploded in the headlines at that time, might have caused dangerous panic" - thus the efforts to provide conventional explanations for the incident (Keyhoe, 1950a). 

Elaborating on the theme four years later, British writer Harold T. Wilkins suggested that "some lethal ray of immense power and unknown type had been directed at Mantell and his plane by the entities in the weird and vast machine, who may have deemed that they were going to be attacked, or wished to demonstrate to terrestrial military power, with its anti-aircraft batteries, the folly of any close approach" (Wilkins, 1954). Comparable rumors and speculations persisted for many years afterwards. Ufologist Leonard H. Stringfield talked with someone who claimed to have spoken with "Mantell's wing man," who said he saw a burst of "what appeared to be tracer" fired at Mantell's F-51 (Stringfield, 1977). In fact, Clements and Hammond testified at the time that when they last saw Mantell, he was simply ascending. 

George Hunt Williamson, George Adamski, and Orfeo Angelucci, three prominent early contactees, contributed to the growing legend as well. According to Williamson, Mantell's last words were, "There are windows and I can see people in it!" ("Captain," 1954). In Inside the Space Ships (1955) Adamski has one of his contacts, Ramu of Mars, lamenting 

an accident which we regretted ....... . Members of the crew had noticed Captain Mantell coming toward them and knew that his interest was sincere, not belligerent. They were fully aware of the power radiating from their ship and thought it would halt his approach without injury to him. But as he came closer, the wing of his plane cut through this power, allowing a suction to take place which pulled the entire plane into it, causing an immediate disintegration of both the plane and his body.

On the other hand, a space visitor tells Angelucci that Mantell "was endeavoring to overtake and capture one of the remotely controlled disks" (Angelucci, 1955). 

The Mantell story returned in its most bizarre incarnation in the testimony of an Englishman named Ernest Arthur Bryant. On April 24, 1965, according to Bryant, a flying saucer landed in the Devonshire village of Scoriton. Three figures dressed in "diving gear" emerged, and one, who appeared to be about 14 years old, spoke to him, identifying himself as "Yamski" from "Venus" and mentioning a "Des" or "Les" who "would understand" were he there. (A day earlier Adamski had died in the United States, his first book was co-written with Irish occultist Desmond Leslie. The clear implication, of course, was that Bryant's space friend was Adamski reborn.) Yamski also said, "One month from today we will bring you proof of Mantell," which turned out, when delivered via a blue light on June 7, to be pieces of an aircraft (Buckle, 1967). Aviation experts determined they were not parts from an F-51. Bryant's story turned out, not surprisingly, to be a fabrication (Oliver, 1968; see also Scoriton Hoax). 

Adamski, George. Inside the Space Ships. New York: Abelard Schuman, 1955. 

Angelucci, Orfeo. The Secret of the Saucers. Amherst, WI: Amherst Press, 1955. 

Buckle, Eileen. The Scoriton Mystery. London: Neville Spearman, 1967. 

"Captain Tom Mantell's Last Words." C.R.I.F.O. Newsletter 1,9 (December 3, 1954):4. 

Crain, T. Scott, Jr. "A Mantell Diary", MUFON UFO Journal 217 (May 1986): 9-13,17. 

Gillmor, Daniel S., ed. Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects. NewYork: Bantam Books, 1969. 

Gross, Loren E. UFOs: A History - Volume 1: July 1947-December 1948. Scotia, NY: Arcturus Book Service, 1982. 

Jones, William E. "Historical Notes: Thomas Mantell." MUFON  UFO Journal 264 (April 1990): 18-19. 

Keyhoe, Donald. The Flying Saucers Are Real. New York: Fawcett Publications, 1950a. 

Keyhoe, Donald The Flying Saucers Are Real." True (January 1950b): 11-13,83-87. 

Leslie, Desmond. "Captain Mantell-No Further Doubts About Interception." Flying Saucer Review 1,5 (November/December 1955): 7,30. 

"The Mantell UFO-A Smoking Gun? Maybe!" Just Cause Pt. I. 39 (March 1994): 9-10; Pt. II. 40 (June 1994): 8-12. 

Oliver, Norman. Sequel to Scoriton. London: The Author, 1968. 

Ruppelt, Edward J. The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1956. 

Saunders, David R., and R. Roger Harkins. UFOs? Yes! Where the Condon Committee Went Wrong. NewYork: World Publishing Company, 1968. 

Shallett, Sidney. "What You Can Believe About Flying Saucers." Saturday Evening Post Pt. I (April 30, 1949): 20-21,136-39, Pt. II (May 7, 1949)36,184-86. 

Steiger, Brad, ed. Project Blue Book: The The Secret UFO Findings Revealed. New York: Balantine Books, 1976. 

Stringfield, Leonard H. Situation Red, The UFO Siege Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1977. 

Strong, B. R. (pseudonym of Kevin D. Randle) "The Truth About the Mantell Crash." Official UFO 1,6 (February 1975) : 20- 21,45-47. 

"TWA Pilot Challenges Ruppelt." The A.PR.O. Bulletin (September 15, 1956): 4-5. 

Wilkins, Harold T. Flying Saucers on the Attack: New York: Citadel Press, 1954. 

Source: The UFO Encyclopedia, 2nd Ed: The Phenomenon from the Beginning -  Jerome Clark (Omnigraphics, 1998). This two-volume work is available from Omnigraphics, Inc., 2500 Penobscot Building, Detroit, Michigan 48226.

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